Many of us know the story of the little baby Jesus born in a manger in Bethlehem some cold winter night without hardship or struggle. Angels singing praises in heavenly chorus while shepherds and wise men bow before the incarnate king. Is that what really happened though? Has our modern culture reduced Christ to a mere deity who became a man, if even that? Are we tricked into believing that Christ left heaven and became a mere mortal so that we can have a good example of how to live life? These questions and more are expounded for us in The Incarnation of God: The Mystery of the Gospel as the Foundation of Evangelical Theology.
This ground-breaking volume begins with a Preface compelling the reader to delve further into the mustérion that is Christ and his gospel. Drawing from a deep fountain of learned men, the authors begin with a simple quote from John Williamson Nevin:
“The incarnation is the key that unlocks the sense of all God’s revelations. It is the key that unlocks the sens of all God’s works, and brings to light the true meaning of the universe….The incarnation forms thus the greatest central fact of the world.”
It is from this foundation the authors build a masterfully crafted house. The confession of Christ in the flesh is certainly one shrouded in debate and at the same time continues to be a foundational aspect of orthodox Christianity. “The supreme mystery that the Word became flesh, that God, int he person of Jesus Christ, participates unreservedly in the same human nature that we ourselves possess, is at the very center of the Christian faith”, state the authors as they begin to tie the threads of the birth, life,death, resurrection, ascension, and session of Christ together.
If our foundation is to be true then the authors must begin with contrasting that truth with what has been falsified. This they do in exploring early christological heresies which come in the form of Apollinarianism, Arianism, Sabellianism, and others which “If left unchecked”, we are told, “is positively destructive”. Thus a section assessing the biblical accuracy of heresies and orthodoxy is extremely fitting in order to place the incarnation on a trajectory which will create a robust biblical theology based on the Logos and not philosophical creations.
In Knowing the Father through the Son (Chapter 2) the authors bring together several points made towards the end of the opening chapter. They lean heavily on Gregory of Nanzianzus and T.F. Torrance in proclaiming their rally cry, namely that “The Unassumed is the Unhealed”. In other words, that which Christ did not take on or assume in the incarnation is left unregenerate. For example, if Christ had not assumed our human mind, a heresy brought on Apollinaris of Laodicea, then our minds would remain unregenerate even in the event of our union with Christ. An idea so small, as we will see later, had a much broader implication on the metaphysical aspect of Christ’s incarnation.
As the Chalcedonian Council put to pen a helpful confession of Christ, they viewed the reality of Jesus Christ as being “of the same reality as God…as far as his deity is concerned and of the same reality as we are ourselves…as far as his humanness is concerned”. What implications can this have on the human mind? In seeking an answer the authors point to one aspect of Christ assuming a human mind; “Christ came to reconcile and atone for our broken and corrupted knowledge of God.” In pushing the Chalcedon definition further the authors add “the unveiling of God in our human flesh, his stunning self-disclosure in our creaturely existence, was simultaneously scandalous and saving. In other words, the kind of knowledge Jesus of Nazareth claimed to have of God was both a stumbling block and the offer of eternal life at the same time.”
This no doubt acts as an exegetical lens by which we see the rest of scripture and has far-reaching implications for doctrines like original sin. Not only do the authors contend that Christ radically altered our knowledge of God but they peel back the veil a bit, explaining to us the transmission of information about God and his incorporation of believers into an experiential, and relational knowledge of the Father through the Spirit.
So far we have seen several aspects of the incarnation, all pointing to an inter-trinitarian reality that God condescends to us in the person of Christ. But what does that really mean? Can we know God in Christ? Many who viewed Christ in the flesh simply claimed that he could not be equal with God and disregarded him. Even in his own town they did not receive him (John 1:11). So how are we to think about the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6b)?
The most helpful discussion in this section comes through an interesting look at the viae, or “ways” of discussing diving attributes. Here they describe three ways in which man can see God in creation, commonly called Natural Theology. The via causalitatis, the “way of causality”, the via eminentiae, the “way of eminence”, and the via negativa, or “way of negation”. Commonly touted by renowned philosophers worldwide, the authors who no doubt take on a presuppositional apologetic method, have this against their methods of getting at God;
“Common to these “ways” is the presumption that we innately and intuitively know what must be affirmed and denied of God, for these “ways” are exercises in natural theology, misguided attempts to pronounce on the nature and character of God apart from his own self-disclosure, without respect to Jesus Christ. There is but ‘one mediator between God and man,’ and that mediator is not creation (1 Tim. 2:5). Creation cannot mediate God’s self-disclosure for the simple reason that creation is categorically, qualitatively not God. Were this not the case, and creation itself could produce true and accurate knowledge of God, the mediation of Jesus Christ as revealer of God would be superfluous.”
We’ve already discussed the fact that Christ came in the flesh assuming our human nature and all that comes with it, but does that mean Christ took on a sinful nature? How does the nature of sin or the reality thereof affect the incarnation? The authors already confess that, “God the Son’s coming in the likeness of sinful flesh means that he became man in our fallen nature, that he assumed a human constitution created by God yet ruined and wrecked by sin–not human nature as it was before or apart from the fall, but human nature as it exists by and after the fall.”
The question that lingers in my mind here is one of universal significance. Did Christ atone once for all humanity which is shared by every human? Does that mean his entire being is mediating for every human person on account of having perfected the sinful nature we have post-Adam? It’s not enough here to say that Christ entered into Mary’s womb a sinless human who would carry our sins in perfect unison with his divinity, carry them to the cross and crucify them while absorbing the alienation and wrath due those sins as he hung there on Golgotha.
For me the answer to my question, though only partially, comes in the form of both the mediation which Christ is now partaking of and our union with Christ. Here the authors bring out the best of the vicarious birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ on behalf of fallen humanity. “The vicarious humanity of Christ brings to expression the representative character of his person and work, underscoring that our incarnate Lord is never other than the One who is and acts for us–in our stead, as our Substitute. It does not follow from Christ’s substitution for us, however, that our Savior and Mediator is remote or absent from us.”
This segues perfectly into the mystery that is the believers union with Christ, and furthermore, with the Trinity itself. Everything Christ has done, and is for the believer, must never be separated from our union with Him. It is as Calvin puts it so eloquently “as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us”.
This for me certainly ties up some loose ends on the question of Christ’s death being of universally significant and equal for all. There is, however, the discussion one could bring up of the lapsarian order of salvation or the pactum salutis, meaning the order in which God ordained the events of human history to occur in relation to the historia salutis, or history of salvation. A discussion on those things is far too lofty for me to raise here but I can see the significance of the discussion though it remains largely speculative in it’s trajectory.
As the book nears it’s end the authors would be remiss if they did not mention the incarnation in relation to a robust Ecclesiology. “The Church is a participant in the glorious mystery of the incarnation, in which the Son of God joined himself to us that we may be joined to him. Christ’s body has a direct and internal relation to the body of Christ, and whenever the church has embraced this relation, she has been unmistakably sacramental.”
Here the authors draw on the massive intellect and writings of three prominent figures in church history; John Calvin, Martin Luther, T.F. Torrance, Jonathan Edwards and John Williamson Nevin. They unfold with precision the correlation of the incarnation with a sacramental theology which has changed the way I view the whole of the means of grace. They unpack for us the Augustinian statement of the sacraments being a “visible sign of an invisible reality”.
Here they also have an interesting tie-in of the preached Word and incarnate Word. A section highly useful for pastors, the authors unfold for the reader, preaching as a sacrament which is “nothing else than Christ’s coming to us or bringing us to him”. The sacraments are in themselves mysteries of the gospel, which are much too glorious to expound fully by anyone.
In our world of fancy-pants preaching and ear-tickling turns of phrase, the gospel has become disassociated from the believers union with Christ. This begs an important question, “If Christ were not truly present in the gospel that bears witness to him, how would anyone ever be saved?” How indeed can we proclaim Christ in our message when our pulpit narratives become anything other than the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ?
Another fascinating section of this book lies in it’s firm rebuttal of the stance modern Evangelicalism takes on the Lord’s Supper. “On the one hand, evangelicals tend to see Reformers such as Luther and Calvin as theological allies with respect to their preaching on salvation…or justification by faith alone…On the other hand, many evangelicals view the Reformers with a sense of theological alienation when it comes to their teaching on the Lord’s Supper. Luther’s and Calvin’s affirmation of the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament of the Supper is often met with curiosity, if not bewilderment and incredulity, by their modern-day progeny.”
In other words, we love to quote Calvin from his Institutes not knowing that many of the glorious statements made regarding his doctrine of Christ come not in the sections where Calvin is expounding on the work or life of Christ, but from the sections where Calvin is writing on the sacraments. Indeed this is a strange irony. We tear asunder what Calvin and the Reformers seek to hold together.
In a most interesting finale, the authors show us the often missed reality that the incarnation of Christ directly effects our sexuality as male and female persons made in the image of God. The harsh reality for the church is that “When the church is theologically deaf and blind to the implications for God’s self-giving in Christ regarding our sinful sexuality, our broken maleness and femaleness, the clothed Christ may be a powerful explanatory symbol….the church’s attempt to speak to marriage and sex. and their multitudinous distortions, have too often been merely political, moral, ethical, social, or psychological–but rarely christological, Trinitarian, ecclesial, and sacramental.”
Here again the authors bring up the importance of the term perichōrēsis in relation to work of Christ that opens up to us the “mystery of God’s eternal three-person existence”. In the mutual indwelling of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit we begin to get a glimpse of the mystery that is Christ and his bride, the church. We, however, do not stop there, we must press on and include that same imaging of the Trinity into the sacred bond between male and female, namely covenanting together in marriage. The whole of Christ’s work on our behalf can be related with the image of marriage.
“This sacred marriage between Christ and the church possesses cosmic redemptive significance, for it is a blessed union that runs into eternity. God began creation with a marriage, he redeemed a fallen creation through a marriage, and he will finally consummate his unfathomable love for us in an everlasting marriage (Rev. 19:6 –9).”
The significance of a volume of this magnitude can not be understated. We must revel in the revelation of God in the face of Christ Jesus and the totality of what that means for our daily Christian lives. We must sit under the preached Word and partake of the vicarious humanity of Christ present in the Supper.
This volume has spurred me on with questions I have not yet answered but am working towards as I seek the scriptures. I am glad this volume is out there challenging not only liberal Christianity but agnosticism and atheists alike.
This unfolding of God’s self-revelation in the form of The Incarnation of God has been particularly useful to me as a novice apologist and I will continue to unfold the truth written here in this little volume. Crossway has done it again with this one, and it doesn’t look like they will be slowing down any time soon.